About 300 people gather at LOVE Park to rally for hate-crimes law change

phate26z-5623
Matt Beierschmitt holds a sign during a rally to support hate-crime legislation at LOVE Park on September 25, 2014, in Philadelphia. ( DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer )

More than 300 people gathered at LOVE Park on Thursday to call for an expansion of the state's hate-crimes law to include crimes motivated by sexual orientation.

The rally, spurred by the Sept. 11 assault of a gay couple near Rittenhouse Square, drew a slew of local and state leaders, who expressed sympathy for the victims and stressed the need to expand current legislation. State Rep. Brian Sims (D., Phila.) organized the rally.

Speakers also drew attention to issues in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, including violence against transgender individuals and bullying in schools.

Caryn Kunkle, a friend of the couple, told the crowd that the victims, who have asked to maintain their anonymity, were overwhelmed by support from the community.

"If there is one city where this will never happen again, it's Philadelphia," she said, reading a statement from her friends.

District Attorney Seth Williams called the assault "a crime against all of us."

"I envision a city where two people in love can walk down the street and not be beaten," he said.

State Sen. Larry Farnese (D., Phila.) promised that he and other legislators would "work our butts off" to expand the law.

Three people have been charged: Philip Williams, 24, of Warminster; Kevin Harrigan, 26, of Warrington; and Kathryn Knott, 24, of Southampton. They have been charged with aggravated assault, conspiracy, and related offenses. They were released early Thursday morning after posting bail, set at $75,000 for Williams and Harrigan, and $50,000 for Knott.

Knott, whose Twitter account drew media attention after her arrest, was fired Thursday from her job at Abington Health Lansdale's emergency room. The hospital said earlier that it had suspended her over the seriousness of the charges against her and was looking into reports that she had posted photos of patients' X-rays.

Her lawyer did not return a call for comment Thursday.

According to court records, the couple, ages 28 and 27, were walking around 10:30 p.m. when they encountered a group of friends out celebrating a birthday.

The couple and the group exchanged words, leading to an argument that resulted in an altercation, during which members of the group used antigay slurs, according to the records. One man suffered a broken jaw, broken orbital bones, and a cut that required 24 stitches; the other, facial fractures.

Attorneys for Williams and Knott have characterized the incident as a mutual fight and not motivated by the victims' sexual orientation.

The case spurred calls for expanding the state's hate-crimes law, which does not include crimes motivated by sexual orientation.

The proposed expansion - outlined in two bills introduced in the Senate and House - would also include protections for gender, gender identity, and disabilities.

A separate bill introduced in the House would outlaw discrimination in employment, housing, and accommodations based on sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.

The crowd that gathered at John F. Kennedy Plaza in a light rain Thursday waved signs and cheered for speakers including local LGBT advocates, politicians, and city officials.

"Dear Hate, This is not your city. With Love, Philadelphia," read one sign, referencing the tourism campaign.

Amid calls for expanding the legislation, several speakers advocated a larger effort to prevent antigay violence.

"The responsibility lies with each of us to push for structural change," said Chris Bartlett, director of the William Way Center, an LGBT outreach organization, who called for antiviolence programs aimed at helping the gay community work with police and efforts to prevent bullying in schools.

He said the incident, "as horrible as it is," is "an opportunity to organize for ourselves and to make a difference."

Kunkle said her friends, who are recovering from their injuries and were watching the rally on TV, have been "touched by the genuine brotherly love" they have seen in the days since the incident.

"It was really powerful to see all the public and political support," Kunkle said after the rally. "I hope this message is loud and clear: Love over hate."

 


awhelan@philly.com 215-854-2961 @aubreyjwhelan